Jackson Leaves Behind Many Unreleased Tracks
Since Michael Jackson's unexpected death, fans and industry insiders have been wondering what unreleased music the pop icon may have left behind.
Reports that he was collaborating on a comeback album with leading hip-hop and R&B artists emerged as early as 2006. He had worked on songs with will.i.am, and Ne-Yo had offered material for consideration.
Akon - whose sweetly lyrical Hold My Hand, featuring Jackson on vocals, was leaked last year - says he and Jackson were working on additional songs. Jackson was intent on crafting an album with "positive messages that would bring people together, upbeat songs as well as ballads," Akon says.
"And his voice was incredible - it had not changed."
Billboard reported last week that Jackson had been at work on both a new pop album, his first since 2001's Invincible, and an instrumental album of classical music.
Veteran engineer and producer Bruce Swedien, a longtime Jackson and Quincy Jones colleague who worked on Off the Wall and Thriller, says he and Jackson had "experimented" with classical music but had "a bunch of things in the works" in more of a pop vein. "There were pieces of music that I think would have been wonderful."
Swedien, whose book In the Studio With Michael Jackson arrives July 27, describes one unreleased song, Don't Be Messin' Around, as "a medium-tempo piece, with Jackson playing piano. And he does it well."
Others point to older recordings. Tommy Mottola, formerly head of Sony Music, Jackson's record company, says the singer accumulated a lot of material that never left the studio. And Queen guitarist Brian May revealed on his website after the superstar's death that he and Freddie Mercury had recorded tracks at Jackson's home.
Sony says Jackson had been in talks for eight months about a 30th anniversary edition of Off the Wall that would pair him with other stars, as with the 25th anniversary edition of Thriller. The label says it has no plans to unveil new or repackaged songs.
That hasn't discouraged speculation.
"Of course they're going to put stuff out," says veteran music critic J.D. Considine, who writes for The Globe and Mail in Toronto. "I would be extraordinarily surprised if we didn't have some kind of elaborate box set in time for Christmas."
Former Spin and Vibe editor Alan Light would advise anyone seeking to represent Jackson's work, particularly the unreleased music, "to be careful what context it's presented in." When rapper Notorious B.I.G. died, "songs were rebuilt and reconstructed around scraps. You can do that, but Michael Jackson was a perfectionist.
"I'd argue it wouldn't serve his memory or his creative legacy to just dump stuff out there."
But Mottola says that while Sony "packaged and repackaged his albums for years, there are still true gems in the unreleased material."
The tough part, most agree, will be finding the right people to curate that material. "Sony would be wise to work with people who really know the music, like some of the producers who worked on it originally," Mottola says. "And it would be good to work with (Jackson's) family as well, to keep everything running smoothly."
For his part, Akon plans to "let the family decide" what to do with his and Jackson's most recent efforts: "They knew him better than anybody."